“The Ethnics of Surrealism” I

Brent Hayes Edwards. Transition 78 [8:2] 84-135. This issue of Transition is themed “Go Primitive” and it has no date. The current issue, however, is 102.

+ Jules Monnerot was black and he was one of the first black intellectuals to collaberote with Breton’s circle. He called the surrealists rodeurs des confins — prowlers at the farthest reaches. He meant, surrealists roam the outer bounds of the modern sensibility, looking for ways to push them further. They are also gnawing at the edges of Europe with their interest in its others.

+ According to Monnerot (in La poésie moderne et le sacré), Lévy-Bruhl’s primitive (1923) was colonialist / Orientalist, and needed the primitive to define the modern. But during this time period these images had started to talk back and to complicate easy assumptions about their primitiveness. Leiris in Afrique Noire: La Création Plastique (which was dedicated to A. Césaire) writes not of a black fashion but of a black crisis: the crisis that black modernity came to represent for Europe.

+ In France, this crisis transformed both ethnography and surrealism; the latter was reinvigorated in the 1930s by a group of young Martinican students including Monnerot and others.  Meanwhile Leiris was moving toward ethnography and listening to jazz with Georges Bataille. Jazz was magical, “a kind of possession”…

+ Leiris went on this ethnographic expedition to Dakar-Djibouti, an expedition which had an unusual relationship with teh Americas (“Panama” Al Brown’s boxing match used as fundraiser; his words defining himself as non primitive – he is black and modern).

+ Both ethnography and surrealism characterize black modernity as a crisis; there is a rich of expression of this in Documents, the journal created by Bataille and his circle in 1929 and 1930.

+ Documents brought together former surrealists, ethnologists, musicologists, and modernists including Alejo Carpentier and Eisenstein. It looked at modernist art criticism, archaeology and ethnography, non-Western and “primitive” art, Parisian music hall and early Hollywood film, comic strips, and convicted murderers. It was a “war machine against received ideas” and it refused the aesthetic point of view. It was against idealism and sought the “inexchangeable heterogeneity of the real” (D. Hollier). It expressly departs from the strategies of surrealism. It searches for a world beyond resemblance, an “impossible” real that would be radically singular.

+ Summer 1996: Pompidou Center hosts an exhibit on this project: L’Informe.

…To be continued!

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